While most head for Brussels or Bruges, the small but perfectly formed city of Ghent in Belgium is arguably Europe’s best-kept secret. The Flemish city was once the most powerful in Europe but today it’s a laid back place with a faint bohemian air. It’s also storybook pretty with a collection of canal-side medieval architecture, Michelin-starred restaurants, quirky boutique stores and a rich calendar of cultural events. To really get the feel of the place, skip the touristy canal boat trips and visit these travel snob worthy spots instead…
If you need to satisfy a sweet craving in the heart of Ghent’s Old Town, then head for Julie’s House. Tucked away along one of the most beautiful streets in Ghent, this is the place to sample one of the things Belgians do best – making cakes, pies and sweets. Opt for a colourful cupcake or a heavenly brownie in deliciously old-fashioned surroundings, complete with cosy retro decor and a window display of fun teapots, cups, saucers and other porcelain. Although be warned, this place can get very busy at weekends (so be prepared to queue) and if you’re counting calories you may just have to give it a miss!
The Great Butcher’s Hall
The city has no big supermarkets – the good folk of Ghent love to eat the finer things and artisan food shops are dotted throughout the city. For starters try the Great Butcher’s Hall, which is definitely not as macabre as it sounds. This place dates back to 15th century when people bought their meat from indoor market halls. Today it houses the centre for the promotion of local East Flemish products so it’s the ideal base to discover the East Flanders’ cuisine – from tasty appetizers to hearty desserts. It also happens to be one of the most unique buildings in the city with a beautiful medieval structure complete with a large step gable facade and open wooden truss roof.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Art and Design is a big focus for the city and they are particularly proud of their Museum of Contemporary Art (otherwise known as SMAK). The light and airy museum houses a highly regarded permanent collection of local works from both local budding artists and international celebrities such as Christo, Warhol and Hockney. It’s also renowned for its provocative exhibitions. It’s a spacious, idiosyncratic place and the ideal spot to while away a few contemplative hours.
Ghent is fast becoming a hot destination for serious foodie types. The city has an exciting culinary scene with dynamic and innovative chefs championing locally produced ingredients. One of the stars of this emerging scene is Tierenteyn – a delicatessen that has a feel of an old fashioned pharmacy. The gorgeously retro shop has shelves stacked with stone jars of spices and herbs, but the product that everyone raves about is their traditional mustard prepared to a secret recipe that dates back to 1790. Just pick your favourite container and they will fill it from a wooden barrel standing beside the counter.
Ghent has one of Europe’s largest pedestrianised shopping areas and a fine array of quirky shops, ranging from vintage boutiques to stores selling lace. Those with a sweet tooth (or children) might want to try Temmerman – a quaint 19th-century sweet shop that sells Flemish specialties such as nose-shaped chewy candies and dark purple neus. For souvenirs with a difference head to Craenkindershuys, a gift shop housed in a historical building that sells unique gifts including gadgets, glassware, ceramics, and locally produced beers.
Housed in 13th-century former grain storehouse, this swish restaurant/brasserie is an enticing mix of the modern and the medieval. Owned by Portuguese restaurateur Antoine Pinto, it’s perfectly positioned by the river in the centre of the historical part of the city. Unwind over a Belgian beer in their attic bar surrounded by leather armchairs, a robust vaulted ceiling and a futuristic backlit bar or relax with a Cuban cigar on their gorgeous riverside terrace. Although the prices aren’t cheap, you’re guaranteed of high quality Belgian produced products – even the wine comes from Belgian winegrowers abroad.